DID YOU READ

“Safe House” director Daniel Espinosa talks character development, audience perspective and the power of information

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In the international espionage thriller “Safe House,” Daniel Espinoza directs Denzel Washington as a rogue operative who gains possession of extremely sensitive information, and has to seek protection from his former agency to buy himself time to figure out how to use it. Ryan Reynolds co-stars as a low-level agent who gets dragged from his menial tasks as a “housekeeper” in to a dangerous chase to protect his “guest” from the forces that want him dead, and himself from his “guest”

IFC had the opportunity to speak with Espinosa about making his first American industry film following the success of his Swedish crime thriller, “Easy Money,” what it was like to develop these characters, his approach to making the movie and how he feels the core story in “Safe House” is relevant to our current political climate.


What initially interested you in the script for “Safe House”? Was it the action, or exploring the world of espionage?

No, my Swedish movie before “Safe House” was a gangster movie and it was radically different than the movies I had done previously. It had a faster tempo, the plot structure was more dominating than the character structure. When I was asked to come over to the states, I thought to myself “what the Americans are very good at doing is creating stories with strong movement and plots that carry the movie as it goes along.” I thought it would be interesting to see what I could do with a conflict between two classic characters within the space of that strong movement. For me it was more about exploring that Master/Apprentice character story between Ryan and Denzel in combination with a very strong plot structure, because that’s the kind of movie you could never do in Europe.

While there is a lot of action, it is a very character driven film. Sometimes you’re not even sure who you should be cheering for because each side makes their own case. What kind of things did you do with the actors to build both their authority and that tension between them?

When it came to Ryan, in his earlier movies, he had almost a James Stewart quality to his work. Very intellectual, very talkative, very verbal and witty. I thought it would be interesting to make him play more silent, more observant of the circumstances around him so that we as an audience can relate to the events of the film through him. I always thought James Stewart’s most interesting work was his silent work, when he didn’t talk so much. I saw this opportunity to make this main character that is mostly silent in contrast to Denzel’s character who is very full-bodied. We worked a very long time on his character’s history and the kind of psychology Denzel’s character would use. Denzel’s character has this very pronounced, rich quality and is comfortable in this world, where Ryan’s character is very silent and bewildered by the situation he’s put in.

It’s that classical thing that you need a viewer of a situation to create dramatic tension and Ryan’s character is very much that.

Building on the topic of perspective, the film is shot in a style that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. You’re rarely watching things from a distance. Why did you take that approach?

I thought alot about the style of the movie. My first decision was to stay close to the style I’ve used in my previous movies in a way to maintain ownership of the feature. Not try to over-extend my reach because it’s my first American industry movie, and then I thought that kind of hand-held, realistic cinéma vérité style would be a nice addition to this genre. I thought about other movies that have used this approach, like Michael Mann’s “The Insider” that used the super-long lens, using a bit shaky-style. On the other hand you have movies like the “Bourne Trilogy,” and that uses a middle lens that creates a bit of objectivity that moves you closer to the characters. I thought it would be interesting to use an even wider lens to be really close to the characters, so you’re not observant at all, you’re a participant in the action that’s surrounding you.

That’s something that’s close to Alejandro González Iñárrit’s earlier work in “Amores Perros.” If you remember that car chase in “Amores Perros,” when they’re sitting in the car and the dog is dead in the back seat, and that car chase was reminiscent to “Reservoir Dogs” when Tim Roth is in the back seat and he’s bleeding to death. While part of it may have been because they didn’t have a lot of money for the scenes, what struck me is that the camera is mostly inside of the car. There are almost no external shots. So, I and my DP Oliver Wood looked at those car chases and said “This looks good, it looks fresh. It would be nice to do a big action movie that’s inspired by these independent films rather than ‘Fast Five’.”

“Safe House” maintains a very steady pace throughout the film. There are only a few moments when the characters, and the audience, get to pause and catch their breath. One scene in particular is when Denzel Washington makes a dramatic change to his physical appearance just by trimming his hair.

I love that scene, it’s one of my favorites. It’s nice and a bit odd, some of the producers didn’t like it because they felt it slowed the motion of the movie down.

It’s wild to watch Denzel Washington age himself backwards like that.

I’m telling you, when he did that it was so odd watching it because that’s really him shaving himself. He’d grown his hair and beard out and we rolled and he started cutting his hair and the whole set went completely silent as we watched him start to look like someone else. He was losing years as he went along without any make-up and that was a very unique experience.

While the action between Washington and Reynold’s characters is taking place in South Africa, the film has an a second theater of events taking place at the CIA headquarters. What was it like working on that set in contrast with the South Africa shoot?

It’s like you’re shooting something that’s very technocratic in a way. It’s like shooting a crime scene, there’s so much that is just clues and technical aspects. We worked to be true to how things are when people are under surveillance by the CIA. It was fun having that as a resistant to the characters and to infuse small moments and suspicions between these three main players; Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, and working that group dynamic of status within the intelligence organization. It was almost like working in theater.

It was a very different kind of challenge. When I shot Ryan and Denzel it was like running after a story that’s moving along as you make it, and I shot it chronologically. It was about the dynamics of how you create your shots and what you’re really focusing on was very different. It was fun to have two different ways of making the movie.

Earlier you mentioned the “Bourne” movies and the spy film genre. One thing about “Safe House” is that the action and execution feels a lot more authentic and grounded than a lot of other espionage films. There aren’t any super-gadgets and or secret headquarters. What kind of research was done to maintain that level of realism?

We had a contact who was a former CIA agent that has run about 6 safe houses around the world, several of them in Latin America, and is a highly decorated CIA operative. He had actually done the kind of work we were depicting and in the beginning I mostly used him for practical stuff on how they would actually do things. What kind of equipment do they keep in the safe house? How are the locks set up? What kind of a location do they pick for a safe house? That’s why the safe house in the film is set up in a hospital area, because he told us they pick buildings that have had some kind of function that works well for what they’ll need. We found a house that had been a hospital and created a safe house in there because our expert said that was something they’d do because they could use the rooms and operating tables as needed.

Our contact very closely monitored our set up, but what was really interesting as we went along was finding out how he’d had it as a CIA operative. Finding out how that life had affected his personality and what he believed in, the stuff he’d been forced to do that, everything in his body told him was wrong and not ethical and yet, still, doing that and believing that he has to do it for his country. Doing it all for the better good. It’s really odd work from that perspective, some people can live with that and others just get broken down by performing those actions.

Part of why I invested so much when I saw the movie is because it felt like something that could be happening right now, and there’s something very relevant about the conflict surrounding the sharing of classified information. Do you think there’s a specific message the film sends about that?

I just think we’re at an interesting place in history because we have a perspective of ourselves as living in a democratic society, and we have to make a decision: should we allow the government and those that we elect as responsible for us to make these decisions without letting us know what’s really going on and why, or do we claim the rights to know what kind of world we’re really living in and what people are really doing in the world around us? It’s the whole WikiLeaks issue, and there’s no judgement on that in the film, but we have to make a decision. Are these actions constitutional? Are they right? Do we have the right to understand the world we live in? The right to all the information regarding why our governments are making the decisions that they are? If we say “No, I think it’s better that they take that responsibility and I don’t want to know” then that’s fine. But, if we don’t think that, then we have to create the change in how that information is handled.

That’s the place we’re in right now, we think we have the capability to get every piece of information and we don’t. We don’t know what’s going on behind the closed curtain. If we want to say we live in a free democratic society, we should be able to find out whatever we want to.

We really appreciate your taking the time to speak with us, before we close, can you tell us what project we can look forward to seeing from you next?

I don’t have any, man (laughs). I just wrapped “Safe House,” like, three weeks ago. Right now I’m just looking forward to going back to Sweden, going to my favorite coffee place and taking shit from my director friends. It’s good to take shit from the people who really know you, it keeps you sane.

What did you think about the style used in making “Safe House”? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
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Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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